I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde. I inherited the love from my mother, who used to read me the story of The Selfish Giant from a beautifully illustrated edition. I find his comedies of manners to be continually entertaining. I love the production of The Importance of Being Earnest from 1952, starring Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans; And I also enjoy the more recent version starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, and Dame Judy Dench. The fist play in which I performed at university happened to be Lady Windemere’s Fan (I played The Duchess of Berwick, for the record).
This week, I bring you some of Wilde’s best loved short stories, in two volumes: A stand-alone story entitled The Canterville Ghost, and a collection of five short stories published collectively as A House of Pomegranates.
The Canterville Ghost centers around the family of Mr. Hiram B. Otis, an American Minister (of the government, not the clergy) who have purchased Canterville Chase, a large estate in England. They are warned it is haunted; but being modern, scientific (some might say boorish) Americans, they have no belief in such nonsense. Why, as soon as they are shown the spot on the carpet still stained with the blood of the (very) late Elenore de Canterville, Washington Otis declares that the latest miracle stain remover will “clean it up in no time”, and scrubs away the legacy lickety split.
The next night the spot returns, however. And soon the ghost himself appears, shuffling his feet and clanking his chains. Mr. Otis takes objection to the noise of his chains, and proffers a bottle of oil, admonishing the ghost for making such noise while all in the household are trying to sleep.
This discomfits the ghost quite a bit – he’s had people scream, faint, run away, freeze in fear – but never admonish him! He’s quite thrown off his game by the continued actions of the family, which brook no respect at all for the dozens of souls he’s frightened over the years! He’s eventually so nervous that on his necessary weekly trips through the halls at night, he remains completely silent, lest he rouse the young twins with their pea-shooters, or Mr. Otis and his latest Miracle Product.
It isn’t until the young Virginia Otis takes pity on the despairing ghost that he is able to find peace. She is able to put his soul to rest, through her kindness and love.
In “The Young King” from A House of Pomegranates, Wilde offers a similar moral, only it is the child himself who is able to change. A young boy who was raised a goatherd is greeted with the news that he’s actually the blood prince; and since the king has just passed away, he must be crowned with all due haste. Coming to the castle, he takes immense pleasure in the rich fabrics, the fine furnishings, the art, the tapestries, the gardens. He is excited for his new crown, scepter and robe which he will receive for his coronation.
But the night before the ceremony he dreams of what the workers are going through – the skin divers suffocating as they find the pears for his scepter; the weavers who work in a cramped attic to make his robe; the men with broken backs who dig for rubies for his crown. And so as the day dawns, he decides instead to wear the simple clothes in which he arrived at the castle, and makes himself a crown of wild briar, and carries his shepherd’s crook as his scepter. While all mock him on his way to the palace, and his councilors beseech him to dress in the raiments of a king, he remains in his humble attire. And on the alter, the sunlight streams through the great windows, bathing him in light, and prompting the Bishop to say, “A greater hand than I hath crowned thee.”
Forgiveness is a big theme in Wilde’s stories. In “The Fisherman and His Soul”, we meet a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid. But sea-folk have no souls, and so the fisherman must find a way to part his soul from himself. He asks the priest how to do this, and the priest chews him out for even considering such a thing.
When the Good Guy won’t help you, go with the Bad Guy (or Gal). With help from a witch, he does find a way to separate his soul, and it goes off without him to adventure across the world – but without a heart it cannot know love. Once a year it returns to the sea where the fisherman went down below the waves to join the mermaid, and recounts its adventures, trying to rejoin him – but the fisherman says Love is better than anything the soul can recount, and the mermaid loves him.
Eventually the soul does tempt him away – and when he returns to the sea, the mermaid will not come; eventually, she washes to the shore, dead. In despair, the fisherman drowns as he embraces her. The priest (remember him?) finds their bodies, but knowing them to have no souls, has them buried in the corner of the Field of the Fullers (ground made barren by the disposal of bleaching and dying vats), without any mark.
Three years later, upon entering the church, he notices strange and beautiful flowers decorating the chapel. When he asks their origin, he is told they came from the corner of the Fullers’ Field. Upon that revelation, he went down to bless the sea, and the creatures within it, and all things that dance in the woodland and may or may not be fairy-tales.
In “The Birthday of the Infanta”, however, we meet a child who is seemingly good natured and sweet. Or at the very least, doing the best she can in the court and wealth in which she’s raised. Until the end, when it is revealed that the dwarf who has entertained her so has died:
“But why will he not dance again?” asked the Infanta, laughing.
“Because his heart is broken,” answered the Chamberlain.
And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain. “For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,” she cried, and ran out into the garden.
If you prefer to listen, Librivox has a wide selection of Wilde available. I suggest this version of The Canterville Ghost as read by David Barnes. A House of Pomegranites was recorded in its entirety by Alex Lau. If you want more (and there is plenty from which to choose), you can peruse the list of available titles here.